Rwanda: The United Nations’  Greatest Failure?

Dan Pearson

The United Nations has been the subject of persistent, and sometimes ferocious, international criticism. Depending on the critic, it is either charged with doing too little or too much. Is it an ineffective organisation slowly being crushed under the weight of its own bureaucracy? Or is it so active that it encroaches upon the sovereignty of its member states? Regardless of what role the UN plays in international affairs, the hostility it regularly faces shows no sign of retreating.

One case continues to dominate the discussion of the past, present, and future of the United Nations. This is, of course, the Rwandan genocide: a horrific three-month saga of ethnic violence that killed somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people. I was first introduced to the genocide through a showing of Hotel Rwanda in high school, and before pressing play on the DVD our teacher described it as one of the UN’s greatest failures. Of course, this is technically true, but the argument implies a misleading image of the United Nations as a single, united entity. The fault truly lies with individual member states, not the organisation as a whole.


Something to remember about the UN is that it does not have its own military. Peacekeeping troops are submitted by member states, and they remain loyal first and foremost to their own nations (Koops et al. 2015: 2). As a result, the UN can only stage an intervention if enough member states agree to take part. This often-overlooked fact lies at the heart of the Rwanda controversy: the UN can only be as active as its member states want it to be. If enough ambassadors and heads of state decide a conflict is not worth fighting over, the UN is effectively held hostage by this international apathy and can do nothing.


Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s tenure as Secretary-General was widely criticised by contemporary observers and his legacy has not, as of writing, undergone a retrospective re-evaluation. Serving in the role from 1992 until 1996, his one term was marked by severe global turbulence, and the United States sunk his re-election bid with an unprecedented veto. Perhaps Boutros-Ghali was not well-suited to the leadership role, and his powers of persuasion and negotiation were conspicuously lacking. But scapegoating Boutros-Ghali over the UN’s failure to intervene in Rwanda is unjustified. Contrary to the mainstream narrative, he took a surprisingly active approach and admonished world leaders for their perceived lack of urgency. When the scale of the genocide became apparent, Boutros-Ghali wrote a strongly worded letter to the Security Council demanding they take action (Melvern 2004: 221). A subsequent appearance on American television, in which he claimed to have personally appealed to world leaders and directly identified the crisis as genocide, demonstrates that Boutros-Ghali cannot be held responsible for the UN’s inaction.


Rather, the organisation was constricted by an international lack of interest that stood in stark contrast to the Secretary-General’s appeal for intervention. Romeo Dallaire, one of the leaders of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda who has since been widely praised for its efforts to stop the genocide, summed up the attitude of member states in one sentence: ‘Most nations agreed that something should be done, [but] they all had an excuse why they should not be the ones to do it’ (2004: 516). The US and UK were particularly sluggish in their offering of aid. For a potential rescue mission, both countries offered rusty and poorly equipped APCs in exchange for hefty cash payments (Melvern 2004: 239-40). Michael Barnett is blunt in his assessment: ‘The failure resides with the states,’ who ‘…calculated that their own citizens cared very little about genocide, or at least they did not care enough to place their men and money on the line’ (1996: 129).


Exactly why member states refused to take decisive action is debatable, but a desire to avoid a repeat of what happened in a fellow African country just a few months prior likely dominated their mentality. The genocide in Rwanda came on the heels of a disastrous attempt by the United Nations to establish stability in war-torn Somalia. The peacekeeping operation came in two phases: the first was blatantly ineffective, and the second is widely associated with the ‘Battle of Mogadishu’, an incident that left nineteen American soldiers dead (Thakur 1994: 387). A devastating blotch on the record of the United Nations, Somalia almost single-handedly gutted belief in the effectiveness of interventionism. Fears were rife that the same mistakes would be repeated in Rwanda. Another failure on the United Nations’ record, so soon after the Somalia catastrophe, certainly would have electrified the organisation’s critics – but was a reputation for apathy an acceptable price to pay instead?


The United Nations is supposed to remind states that they have a responsibility not just to their own citizens but to the rest of the world, and the Rwandan genocide reveals that this spirit of cooperation often comes second to the politics of self-interest. Had troops and resources been provided, Boutros Boutros-Ghali almost certainly would have approved intervention. Unfortunately, member states decided the risk was not worth taking. Perhaps some will interpret this as proof that the UN is ineffective and irrelevant. However, I would argue that a different conclusion can be drawn: that the international community is still too reliant on an almost mercantilist foreign policy that puts their own interests above all else. If the member states of the United Nations fully embraced the organisation’s principles, it would be vastly more successful. Despite these obstacles, the UN has shown itself to be an invaluable contributor to world peace; twelve peacekeeping missions are currently active across the world, and it continues to provide lifesaving humanitarian aid. The organisation can only be as strong as the member states desire it to be, a fact which has been realised too late for the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Rwanda. Perhaps future catastrophes can be averted because of it.



  • Barnett, M. N. (1996), ‘The Politics of Indifference at the United Nations and Genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia’, in Cushman, T., and Mestrovic, S. (eds.), This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia. New York: NYU Press.

  • Dallaire, R. (2004), Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. London: Arrow Books.

  • Koops, J. A., Macqueen, N., Tardy, T., and Williams, P. D. (eds.) (2015), The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Melvern, L. (2004), Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide. New York: Verso.

  • Thakur, R. (1994), ‘From Peacekeeping to Peace Enforcement: The UN Operation in Somalia’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 32 (3), 387-410.

  • Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos - Picture 1

  • Photo credit: The New York Times - Picture 2

  • Photo credit: Jean-Michel Clajot - Picture 3

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